For 15 minutes, silence hung in the air as the judges reviewed their notes. Sophomore James Naumovski, who was ranked 32nd in the preliminary rounds, sat in silence next to his opponent , a senior. Both waited for the judges’ verdict.
When the decision came out that his opponent had won, one of the judges, Michael Harris, walked up to James and praised his performance.
“He held his own in the face of a much more experienced opponent,” Harris said. “Even though he was debating [against] the eventual champion, the round was close enough that the judges had to take a considerable amount of time to decide.”
Because one year of extra debate experience can mean the difference between being ranked number 1 and number 50, Harris recognized how extraordinarily close James had come to defeating the nation’s number one Lincoln-Douglas debater. On the school debate team, James is the top sophomore, trailing only his mentor, senior Salim Damerdji.
Despite having a passion for it now, James had not always been interested in debate. It was a chance opportunity when James’s mother wanted him to experience public speaking. Before joining the school debate team in the fall of 2012, his first taste of debate came when he was persuaded to attend the National Debate Forum during the summer in Davie, Florida.
“I thought that I was going to hate it and I did for the first few days,” James said. “Then I ended up really enjoying it…the coaches were really good and they got me into it.”
It was also at the National Debate Forum where James was introduced to Lincoln-Douglas debates. The philosophic aspect of those debates was one of the reasons why he was attracted to it.
“[It] was interesting because it provided a different way to view each topic,” James said.
Lincoln-Douglas debates involve ethics, morals and philosophy; it is often considered to be a game of right or wrong. However, James specializes in something different.
“A lot of the times…it’s not a debate about the topic,” he said. “It’s more like a debate about the rules, and that’s what theory is”.
James consistently excels at theory, according to his other coach, Stanford student Ilya Gaidarov.
“He’s a great theory debater,” Gaidarov said. ”And he can think creatively about tricky strategic situations, so he’s often a step or two ahead of his opponents in seeing how the round will play out.
Although theory should theoretically only be used when the opponent is being unfair, many debaters are beginning to use it for its strategic advantage. Despite favoring theory, there have been times when James debates by the books.
During one of the preliminary rounds at the Voices Invitational held from October 11-14, James argued for an affirmative case for the topic of whether or not compulsory voting should be in democracies.
James, using his opponent’s established set of beliefs and standards, demonstrated that his case applied under his opponent’s argument. In a few moves, he effectively undermined the negative’s case while simultaneously demonstrating the validity of his. It was quick thinking, alertness and coherent speech compressed into a 300 words per minute debate that ultimately convinced the judges to award James the win.
However, there have been struggles along the way. When James started out on the varsity debate team at school, it was not easy.
“I was a complete underdog because everyone else had two to three more years of experience,” James said.
In a year, James hopes to qualify for the Tournament of Champions in April where the top 80 Lincoln-Douglas debaters in the nation compete. Although it will be hard, James believes that if he works hard enough, he will make it. And Gaidarov has nothing but praise for James.
“He has a lot of potential,” Gaidarov said. “And his approach to debate should continue actualizing that potential as he matures as a [debater].”